Wednesday, December 21, 2011


This morning I read a short item from Mashable describing some predictions being made for the next five year by IBM. Among more workaday predictions we've heard elsewhere - that biometrics will become mainstream, for example, or that mobile computing will end the digital divide - is a prediction that demands more attention: that mind reading will become a practical technology.

This seems more the stuff of science fiction than it does a practical reflection on the future of work. However, the technology itself is not science fiction. The technology already exists to allow a person to control the movement of a cube on the screen through the exercise of thought alone. As we design input devices of greater and greater sensitivity, phenomena that once appeared to us to be only mental - our thoughts and dreams, for example - will begin to appear as physical manifestations.

Musing ('mental using') will become commonplace. Musability will become an important science, as these interfaces will need to be able to support action without distracting us - if you think it's dangerous to drive while talking on a mobile phone, imagine how dangerous it will be to drive while interfacing with a poorly designed muser agent.

Most likely we will first experience these interfaces as games. We will play at rotating the cube or dropping the objects into the correct containers all the while adapting to new skills our children (or their children) will take for granted. These mental environments will become as real to us - and as important a part of our every day lives - as places like Facebook and Twitter and World of Warcraft are today. It will, indeed, be difficult to imagine what the world was like before people were connected mentally.

It is tempting at first to see such devices as replacing our current control panels and input screens. And there is an advantage to be found in mental control of physical devices. For example, we can with training speed our reaction times. Or we can, through visualization, execute movements that might be difficult physically, such as balancing an object or reproducing an image. Mental controls also reduce the distraction physical movements create while driving or executing some other motor operation.

Musing, however, has the potential to have a much wider impact. The possibility of subsonic broadcast through, say, a tiny transmitter implanted in our ears, or through optical displays embedded in a contact lens, enables two-way communication. A person could interact with another person or device in an entirely inconspicuous manner. The clerk at the counter who smiles and welcomes you by name may be communicating with a complex computer program that tells her everything she needs to know in the time it takes the two of you to shake hands.

Or you may be communicating with each other subvocally. When you walk up to the counter your request has been prepared by your own computer system and is transmitted to her with a thought. She receives a short mental message acknowledging receipt and nods to you in response, while subsonically expressing her thanks for your patronage. Meanwhile your status - and your thoughts - are relayed instantly to other members of your workgroup, who receive them as updates as they participate in meetings or tasks of their own.

It seems like a small thing, internal communication instead of external. But as our machines become more able to respond to our thoughts, these communications will enable complex tasks to be performed by teams of people working in concert. Highly sensitive operations, like computer chip design or brain surgery, for example, will be performed entirely by thought, by operators working in fully immersive environments imagining their way through an environment. Close your eyes and picture yourself attaching neurons to each other - that's what it will feel like to you as nanobots perform the actual physical labour.

While it is tempting to linger on the practical and technical aspects of musability, these will seem superficial when considered against the social changes wrought by such intimate communications. It may be hard to imagine today technologies such as email and texting to be slow and cumbersome, but that is how it will feel to a muser. And the immediacy of such communications will change the way we relate to each other. Social organizations will become much more personal, and the idea that "it's just business" will be relegated to an age when you didn't know - or could pretend you didn't know - how people would feel when you worked with them.

Practical musing technology may still be five years away, and the rise of what the new version of Wired will call "Muser Nation" may be a generation to come, but just as we can see how network technologies have had a profound impact on today's social organizations, weakening the dominance of the hierarchies and resulting in the rise of asymmetrical warfare, people power and crowdsourcing, so also the mentally connected society will experience a fundamental change. It is hopeful - but maybe not unrealistic - to talk of moving beyond mere communicating to an ethos of caring.

Two factors would bring such a future into being. First, we would need a science that allowed us to share not just vocalized thoughts but also our experiences, emotions and feelings. Such a science would be technically possible; the major question is rather whether it would be socially acceptable. And second, a mechanization of work such that the bulk of physical labour were performed mentally, through musable interfaces. In such a case, the practice of 'work' as we know it today becomes less like labour and more like art. In such an environment, we would in order to become engaged, and the level of engagement becomes directly proportional to the emotional fulfillment we receive.

It is perhaps difficult today to imagine a society in which we work for something other than the bread on our table and the roof over our heads, but a combination of abundance energy and mental computation make a reorganization of the underlying economics a necessity. The less demand there is in society for physical labour, the more unfair and less efficient a distribution of wealth based on labour will become. And so as we transition into a post-wealth society, and as public access to the necessities of life become commonplace, new currencies of community and well-being will become paramount.